EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns-Clippers series preview, Pt. 4: Can L.A. make it ugly (again)?
Apr 13, 2023, 9:15 AM | Updated: 9:16 am
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
With one more playoff series matchup to be determined by the play-in tournament, FanDuel as of Wednesday night has the Phoenix Suns as the biggest favorites out of the three series in the Western Conference at -500 over the Los Angeles Clippers. They are a sizable favorite, not all that common for the 4/5 matchup.
There are lots of reasons for that, and a few we’ve covered already.
But despite Paul George potentially not being a factor in this series, there’s a path to victory for the Clippers.
The 2021 Western Conference Finals between these two teams was ugly. Los Angeles successfully slowed the game down enough to make it even more about physicality. Its isolation-heavy offense was unable to consistently create good looks but its defense was superb, the reason the series went six games.
And if you think about it, that series was a lot closer than we remember. Each Suns win featured an outstanding individual performance. Devin Booker’s 40-point triple-double in Game 1, Cam Payne’s game of his life to make the Valley-Oop possible in Game 2, Deandre Ayton’s other-worldly two-way performance in the Game 4 rock fight and Chris Paul’s closeout masterpiece in Game 6.
That was because Los Angeles dictated the style and was able to hit key, timely shots. Whether it was Phoenix attempting to pull away or get closer, the Clippers kept answering. In Game 2, Los Angeles at one point over 14 minutes of play from the late third quarter to late fourth quarter hit seven 3-pointers each possession after a Suns bucket to keep the game within 3-6 points.
The Clippers have the shooting to do this again.
Discluding the centers in Los Angeles’ rotation, all of the Clippers take at least two 3-pointers a game.
The worst three-point shooters are Bones Hyland (35.1% 5.3 attempts per game) and Russell Westbrook (35.6%, 3.5 attempts). Westbrook is historically not a good shooter from deep and Hyland is streaky.
Beyond those guys are legitimate catch-and-shoot threats like Eric Gordon (42.3%, 5.0), Kawhi Leonard (41.6%, 4.8), Norman Powell (39.7%, 4.8) and Nicolas Batum (39.1%, 4.1).
Robert Covington (39.7%, 2.8) and Terance Mann (38.9%,2.4) are capable, too.
There is firepower there, and in terms of generating the 3s, that’s where we return to Westbrook’s importance and how his playmaking could trigger that.
Are the numbers there to support this? Eh. Los Angeles is 14th in the percentage of its shots that are 3s since Westbrook entered the starting lineup, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s shooting 39.2% as a team, sixth best over those last six weeks of the season.
All of their three begin with rim pressure. If the Clippers’ ball-handlers are able to get downhill, those ball rotations will get triggered, most of the time by Westbrook.
Again, the metrics aren’t great. The Clippers were 20th in drives per game in the 21 games Westbrook played. Leonard’s 11.1, Powell’s 10.1 and Westbrook’s 9.3 lead the charge, and for reference, Leonard’s mark hardly cracks the top-50 in the league leaderboards. We’ll be keeping an eye on those numbers throughout the series.
It’s important for all three of those guys, particularly Powell, because it gets them to the free-throw line. The likes of Leonard, Powell, Gordon and Westbrook are bucket-getters at multiple levels of the floor and will provide a lot of offense that way. But it’s not to the Suns’ level where the Clippers can just ride shot-making all the way home. They need more, which again is where the production on 3s and free throws will swing it.
Powell in the Westbrook era attempted 5.1 free throws per game, trailing Leonard’s 6.1, while Westbrook was at 3.6. Part of Westbrook’s appeal is getting the ball to the big men so they can have some tosses there too, and the 3.2 a game for Ivica Zubac and 2.4 for Mason Plumlee support that.
To go back to the style of play, the easiest way to get a game stuck in mud is the foul line. That is where the Clippers will butter their bread, and if Phoenix gets consistently outmatched in the discrepancy, Los Angeles should have a few chances to steal one.
The Clippers were 11th in free throw rate, and more importantly, sixth in opponent free throw rate. The Suns were 28th for themselves and dead last in what they gave up.
The offense under head coach Monty Williams has not only benefitted from playing against unset defenses, but at times, the Suns need it. The coach and his players constantly cite how their defense sets up their offense, and that’s why.
If the Clippers are taking 25 free throws and the Suns are failing to crack 20, it’s more about that lack of offensive flow for the Suns and less the point differential from the line. In the regular season, those two qualifiers were met 16 times. That’s one in every five games.
It’s not like Los Angeles lives inside. It was 27th for points in the paint and 21st in the total percentage of its shots within four feet.
On-ball defense will be pivotal for the Suns. I know that sounds obvious, like, “Yeah, Mr. Basketball Analyst, defend the guy with the basketball well. Great work. Excellent observation.”
But the Clippers will make this series even more physical by attempting to drive through Suns defenders. How much resistance begins at the point of attack will factor into how much work needs to get done on the back end and how persistent Los Angeles wants to be.
This will involve everyone for Phoenix.
Playoff-style possessions of attacking mismatches against switching will have Paul get targeted from time to time, and maybe often. Possibly, that comes for Booker too. They will have to hold their own. When it doesn’t involve them, they will have to be on it rotating off the ball through multiple efforts. If you see an open 3-pointer for Los Angeles, that probably means that didn’t come. In the postseason, they have proven themselves up for the task.
Josh Okogie will be an ace with this, and how many possessions he blows up on his own could really disrupt what Los Angeles is trying to do. He will likely start on Westbrook but work his way around to guys like Powell and Gordon, plus Leonard. As a basketball fan, I cannot wait to see that battle with Westbrook.
Breakdowns happen. You cannot play a perfect defensive game, something Kevin Durant said earlier this month. That’s where Ayton’s clean-up work as the anchor is massive. To go back to that Game 4 in 2021, Los Angeles went five-out with only perimeter players and he not only survived, he thrived. We know what he is capable of.
This is where it starts to get fun schematically, because Durant’s ability defensively will get to shine. Weak-side rim protection, sure. But how about going from under the rim to closing out a shooter on the far-side wing and stuffing up a drive at the elbow? He can do that, too.
Phoenix will sprinkle in some traps from Ayton, something it hardly does but is more logical to execute now thanks to having another 7-footer in Durant protecting the rim. Putting a versatile defender like him on the backside is going to be such a luxury for Phoenix this postseason.
The bench’s impact is often measured by its production through scoring but its primary role on this team is defense. Ish Wainright had a game earlier this season Williams described him as “phenomenal” in when Wainright was scoreless, and the coach was right. His multi-positional defending could be of use in this series. Expect to see a lot of Torrey Craig as another body to throw at Leonard. I wouldn’t be surprised if Landry Shamet is the first guard off the bench for his defense.
All that said, the Suns can win this way. They proved it two years ago. But their offensive firepower is just on a whole other level, and Los Angeles will have to prove it has the answers on that end before we really start diving into Los Angeles’ offense any further.
I don’t think we get that far. Suns in five.
All statistics via NBA.com/stats